Nature, Science, Wildlife & Animal Rights

Animal Scent Markings Are Like a Scented Business Card, Scientists Say

Hyena scent markings
Hyenas leave scent markings that communicate information to other animals.
Image: Shutterstock

When you dash off a quick text to a friend, do you think you’re communicating a lot?  Maybe you are, but it’s nothing compared to an animal leaving a scent marking.  A lot of information is transmitted in a small amount of time.

Animals leave scent markings or pastes on trees or grass for many reasons.  They might be marking their territory.  They might be calling for a mate.  Or, they might just be letting others know they are in the area and how they’re doing.

A recent article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said “detailed scent posts of hyenas are, in part, products of symbiotic bacteria, microbes that have a mutually beneficial relationship with their hosts. When hyenas leave paste deposits on grass, the sour-smelling signals relay reams of information for other animals to read.”

Kevin Theis, who is the main author of the paper, and researcher at Michigan State University, mentioned that “Hyenas can leave a quick, detailed message and go. It’s like a bulletin board of who’s around and how they’re doing.”

Theis continued, “Scent posts are bulletin boards, pastes are business cards, and bacteria are the ink, shaped into letters and words that provide information about the paster to the boards’ visitors. Without the ink, there is potentially just a board of blank uninformative cards.”

The researchers found the bacteria in scent glands is much stronger and more diverse than originally believed.  This allows hyenas to pass on more information in a simple way.

In collaboration with MSU researcher Danielle Whittaker, the team is now doing similar research with birds.  It helps that they are working for MSU’s BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, as they are fully supportive of the research.

Some other animals that leave scent markings are squirrels, beavers, foxes, mule deer and lynx.  Some animals even use scent glands as a way to identify members of their own family. Can you imagine what it would be like if humans understood how to consciously leave and decode scent markings, passing on information to other humans that happen by?

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